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Future Sea Level Rise

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USGCRP: Product 4.1 - Coastal Sensitivity to Sea Level Rise


NOAA: Sea Levels Online

Higher temperatures are expected to raise sea level by:

Higher temperatures are also likely to increase the amount of snowfall over central Greenland and Antarctica. The higher snowfall is likely to offset part of the sea level rise from other factors because the additional snow is composed of water that would otherwise be in the ocean.

Figure 1: This graph shows estimates of past sea level (from 1800 to about 1870), measured changes in sea level (from about 1870 to 2006), and projections of future sea level rise to the year 2100. Past sea levels at the beginning of the period were roughly 120-200 millimeters lower than today's levels; projected future sea levels in the year 2100 range from 220 millimeters to nearly 500 millimeters higher than today's levels.
Past and projected global average sea level. The gray shaded area shows the estimates of sea level change from 1800 to 1870 when measurements are not available. The red line is a reconstruction of sea level change measured by tide gauges with the surrounding shaded area depicting the uncertainty. The green line shows sea level change as measured by satellite. The purple shaded area represents the range of model projections conducted by IPCC for a medium growth emissions scenario (IPCC SRES A1B) and excludes the additional rise in sea level if Greenland or Antarctica contribute more ice to the oceans in the future. Source: IPCC (2007)

Considering all of these influences, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that the global average sea level will rise by 7.2 to 23.6 inches (18-59 cm or 0.18- 0.59m) by from 1990-2100, plus the unknown contribution from increased discharge of ice into the oceans from Greenland and Antarctica (see Figure 1).

The unknown contribution that IPCC did not attempt to estimate may be more important than what they did estimate; so IPCC has received a great deal of criticism for publishing a high scenario that omitted the most important risk. IPCC did point out that if ice flow were to increase linearly, in step with global average temperature, then sea level rise would be about 10-20 centimeters greater than assumed. But they did not actually add that estimate to their published projection, even though the US State Department and others suggested that they should. Others have not been so reluctant, but until IPCC revises its estimate of future sea level rise, it will be difficult for people along the coast to know what to make of those higher projections.

According to the IPCC, current model projections indicate substantial variability in future sea level rise between different locations. Some locations could experience sea level rise higher than the global average projection, while others could have a fall in sea level. The same factors that currently cause sea level to rise more rapidly along the Mid-Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, and less rapidly in parts of the Pacific Northwest, are likely to continue. Changes in winds, atmospheric pressure and ocean currents will also cause regional variations in sea level rise - but those variations cannot be reliably predicted.

Over time, more substantial changes in sea level are possible due to the vulnerability of the West Antarctic and Greenland Ice sheets. However, there are significant uncertainties about the magnitude and speed of future changes (IPCC, 2007):


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